British Asia News Network
London: The inmates from Tihar Jail in New Delhi, of one of the world’s largest complex of prisons in South Asia, are stitching away designer clothes for a Bollywood movie ‘Marksheet‘, and are now gearing up for projects across Europe. This might appear shocking because Tihar, styled as a correctional institution with the objective to convert its inmates into ordinary members of society by imparting useful skills, is reputed to house some of the most hard-core and dangerous inmates in India.
The project to train inmates advanced techniques of design and creating costumes through laboratories within the jail, is a great example for the world to take notice of and recognise the potential of inmates and give them an opportunity to improve their self-esteem, strengthen their desire to improve, and respect the law.
About a year ago, Winky Singh was approached by a renowned Bollywood director to design a costume for ‘Marksheet‘. The inspiration behind the concept to involve inmates came from the lead actor, Imran Zahid, who proposed Winky’s name to work with the inmates. His idea was to give them an opportunity to design clothes for his upcoming film, channelizing their energies in a creative direction, and making a difference in their lives.
“This is the first time in the history of cinema that someone has accomplished a concept like this,” said Imran. “Winky Singh was the right person to teach them the advance techniques of fashion and mentor them for the same.”
Winky’s association with the inmates did not end with the project. Being able to empower the inmates through training and mentorship soon became the mission of her life. She founded her NGO called ‘Charity on Wheels’ and started introducing inmates to new aspects of design, giving regular work under the brand ‘Tihar Girls’.
To give ‘Tihar Girls’ a global platform, she was in London last month – meeting up with notables who could support her through sponsorships and recognise the potential of the prisoners.
Her passion, the quality of the brand and her pure intent soon found many takers. Viola Edward, Founder of ‘Feminine Capital Forum‘, a holistic business consultant and transcultural psychotherapist developed a friendship with Winky through her work with the inmates. “Winky’s project touched my heart as soon as I heard her heart beating for the rhythm of her passion. I was immediately inspired to support her work with whatever I can. I am happy to introduce her to networks to expand and receive more support for her meaningful project with the inmates in Tihar Prison in Delhi,” said Viola.
Viola Edward wearing one of Winky Singh’s ‘Tihar Girls’ collection at a networking event in London
Biljana Gulubovic, an award-winning Theatre Director, Academy of Performing Arts, a performing artist, lecturer and videographer from Prague is planning to create a performance at the Prague Theatre about Winky’s work. The form of performance will be close to documentary site-specific theatre with elements of story-telling and concrete pieces of costumes made by the inmates.
“The story will have few elements – the ground one is about human condition in traumatic situation as prison life, positive life challenges coming from the outside world like learning to make designer clothes with Winky. Her project is a big hope to the prisoners.
“In order to create the play, we will do ground research on Winky’s work, visit her in India to see how making clothes have changed and improved the quality of life of women in jail and even influence community and society to think more openly about not stigmatising prisoners, but recognising the potentials.
“We will create an artistic team with my dancers, photographer and videographer Dragan Dragin, and Viola Edward as a supervisor of the performance. These clothes will be up for sale after the show,” said Biljana.
Winky is happy with the outcome, but is looking forward to support from the fashion and garment industry in the UK to help her exhibit, stock her collection in stores, give her orders, and organise a fashion show to generate awareness and lead to sales.
“I’ve laid the foundation in London, now I have to connect the dots. I am looking for sponsorships where I can organise a showcase of the clothes designed by the inmates. I want to exhibit their clothes, so they can see their creativity,” said Winky.
“I have several plans for the clothes being designed by the inmates. I want to be able to showcase their collection and sell so I can come back with a fresh collection every three months. Even if I can tie up with stores that will keep say 10 to 12 of these ‘garments for a cause’ they will be contributing to our cause.”
The brand makes classy, fashionable, single garments in cotton and silk. The fabrics, mainly khadi organic cotton, are woven by the inmates in the weaving laboratory inside the jail. The brand now sells designer pieces that range between £60 to £300.
A large part of the proceeds from the garment sales go back to the inmates involved so they can use these to appeal through lawyers to fight their cases, support their families, and use them as savings for their future.
Garments from ‘Tihar Girls’
“Finding employment as soon as they are out of the jail may be difficult. Their involvement in the jail provides them with the earnings that serve as a buffer and the skills that can help them gain employment or become self-employed,” said Winky.
Despite her reputation as a designer and her friends in Bollywood to support her, the journey has not been an easy one for Winky. She had to go through rigorous background checks and patiently wait for clearances and authorisations before she could start working closely with the inmates.
She then tried to mentally prepare herself for the horror stories that awaited behind the Tihar walls, but nothing had prepared her for what she witnessed while working regularly with the inmates after she embarked upon the mammoth task of costume designing for the film.
While each inmate had a different story to tell, many were abandoned by the family, ostracized and shunned by society. They did not have the means and support to appeal their cases through lawyers. Many were the victims of circumstances and not real criminals.
Without the support of their families many had been eschewed by them as criminals; inmates felt hapless about their future beyond the jail walls. They lacked the skills to integrate into the workforce upon their release after serving their term, being exploited along the way, with little hope of living a life of dignity.
Through ‘Charity on Wheels’, she started imparting skills and training which are marketable and financially viable, with a view to aiding in enhancing income generation whilst in prison and employability on release. Helping in the making of designer garments within the prison for commercial retail, has helped the inmates by enhancing their access to legal aid to help with cases of complaints, under-trails, appeals and so forth.
The jail officials appreciated her dedication and supported her with the necessary infrastructure, such as making the design laboratory along with a weaving lab, where the inmates weave handmade linen, khadi.
A special mention goes to the DIG of Police at the Tihar Jail, Shailendra Parihar, who supported her in starting a Design Laboratory within Tihar for making top-end garments.
DIG of Police at the Tihar Jail, Shailendra Parihar during the inauguration of the design laboratory inside Tihar Jail
Recognising Winky’s contributions towards the well-being of the inmates, the Superintendent of Police at Tihar Jail, Sarita Sabharwal, said: “Earlier our inmates used to stitch simpler cloth pieces and dresses. However, now under the guidance and training given by Winky Singh, they stitch ready-to-wear designer pieces with much finesse and are capable of tailoring at a more professional level.”
Winky found a deep desire among the inmates to learn, pick up skills, and work hard on the projects which she was bringing to the table for them. She is now involved in the branding and commercialising of prison manufactured products. Along with empowering the inmates, she also looks at their rehabilitation and re-integration into society with dignity. She has also gone a step further and utilises the Tihar catering facilities to provide food for underprivileged children. We hope more people in the UK come forward to help her by partnering with her at different levels and become a part of her journey to improve and empower.
Exhibition of clothes made by Tihar inmates